“Checkout Wars” – A survivor’s tale

Yesterday was what has become a typical Sunday for us – early trip to the farmers’ market to buy fresh produce, stop in on the way home at a supermarket to top up with key ingredients not available from the market. After getting most of my groceries at the market, I still needed chiles, cilantro, basil and greek yoghurt.  Whenever I brave a supermarket these days I make sure I go in with a plan and come out only with the items on my shopping list and nothing else.  I have come to understand that “impulse buys” are not a quirk of character on my part, they are very carefully orchestrated by the store’s strategy to prompt me to buy items I neither want nor need.  I now know that if I didn’t want it when I arrived, I am not going to miss it after I leave, no matter how much I may feel I want it in the moment.

The supermarket we use is a major chain in South Africa, with some similarities to Whole Foods in the USA.  One of these being that they sell what Michael Pollan calls “Storied food.”   Storied food is delightful – you can pick it up and read a little adventure yarn about where the food was grown, by who and how it came to be in your hands.  For example, the logo on the milk was a heart with a cow inside.  I was charmed to read that the milk had been produced by “happy cows.”  Not a word on whether those cows were grass or grain fed, and given the omission it is safe to assume that it is the latter.  However, at least the cows were happy about it!  Presumably the farmer took a survey and got a high satisfaction rating from the herd.

But the story telling is not confined to the labels on the products. The store had a massive advertisement at the entrance and again at the exit about their “Organic range” claiming that you could buy organic in everything “from t-shirts to tea bags.”  Given the size of the billboards, I wondered if I would suddenly find a vast array of new organic products on the shelves.  Looking into the history of this store’s relationship with organics, I found this fascinating press release from 2004 that explained their insight that organic was going mainstream and how they had updated their marketing to address this rapidly growing customer base.  How exciting!  Not so fast though, for a store that has understood the appeal of organics for such a long time, I was disappointed at how few items I could locate with the organic label in the fresh produce section.  I found some broccoli and that was pretty much it.  Perhaps the massive signs at the entrance and exit are meant to draw an organic “halo” around everything in the store, even if only a handful of products are actually certified organic?  Surely the marketing team would not be that cynical or have such a low opinion of consumer intelligence?

What is interesting is that there are at least 4 active, well supported farmers’ markets within a few kilometers of this particular store.  The one near my home a little further away does not advertise organics nearly as prominently.  Perhaps because they don’t face the same level of competition from the local food movement?  Least you think I am over-stating my case, the competition is real.  The markets were absolutely packed but there were only a handful of people in the supermarket.  Of course trade will pick up when the markets close, but for a few hours a week at least, this store is losing significant patronage to the nearby markets.

I was standing in the checkout line, looking at the massive “organics” advert overhead and reviewing my purchases to ensure that I everything on my shopping list and nothing else, when another reality thrust itself upon my consciousness.  The store has set up their checkout line so that everyone stands in the same queue and is routed to the next available cashier when they reach the front.  A very equitable and efficient system of queuing, which I greatly appreciate.  What I do not appreciate is the blatant attempt to manipulate my buying behavior in the form of the mouth-watering array of sweets and chocolates that flank the line of shoppers on either side.  What is more, once you enter the queue there is no escape.  There are people in front of you and behind you and your only option is to stand there and look at the goodies screaming “buy me!” for as long as it takes to get to the front of the queue.  Or you can shut your eyes and go to your happy place if you prefer. Those eye-catching candies used to be a source of significant temptation to me.  I would almost invariably succumb, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering husband, who seems immune to advertising of any kind for reasons I do not quite understand. These days I am able to run the gauntlet of the checkout line and emerge unscathed, which is a great relief to me. I now entertain myself by watching the other shoppers to see how many browse the items on display and end up adding a sweet or chocolate to their basket.  I would say it is at least one in 3, although if a young child is involved that likelihood increases dramatically.

It is because of tactics such as this, that I take massive offense at anyone who wants to reduce the diet of children to parental responsibility.  I have witnessed children simply lose it in that situation and have an all-out screaming tantrum.  Glass shatters and eardrums burst and other patrons look on in irritation and disapproval.  I have seen parents just grab a bag of sweets, rip it open and hand it to their hysterical offspring right there in the checkout line! Presumably they plan to pay for it later – in more ways than one!  When this occurs all the onlookers are simultaneously thinking two things: “You are a bad parent for giving in to your child like that – you aren’t teaching them anything!” and “Thank God you just did that and made the yelling stop!” I suspect that the parent is doing their level best and is a pretty good parent in most situations, but they are only human and just want the yelling and the social disapproval to stop.  The kid is freaking out, their head is about to explode, the enemy has them surrounded and all escape routes have been blocked off. Can you blame them?

At least when the harassed parent gets to the checkout they will be asked if they have a “My School” card and if they do a percentage of their purchases will go to support a school of their choice.  Next time you give in and buy that chocolate you had intended to resist, just remember that you are “doing it for the children!”

Would a store that really cares about their customers, the environment, the community and the education of children, deliberately put parents in this untenable situation every time they buy at the store with a child in tow?  If it is all about “consumer choice” and “making healthy choices that are part of a balanced diet” then why is it not good enough to give the sweeties their own aisle just like all the other products? Why do they need to flank the checkout line? Why not place the vegetables there instead?  If someone buys a bunch of carrots on impulse, no harm done, right? I do know that whenever I bought sweets, I would end up not only buying more and more sweets, but more food overall.  Is it possible that the store knows this as well?  As a grown adult I have to make a conscious effort to counteract the store’s strategy and come out with my health and budget in tact. Just watch this marshmallow experiment and you will get an idea of how tough this is on a kid, and the parent responsible for them.

If this video doesn’t tug at your heart-strings you are just dead inside!  Seriously, who would do this to a little kid?  Your local supermarket, that’s who!  Of course the point of the experiment is that ability to resist the marshmallow correlates to greater academic achievement later in life, so perhaps the supermarket exposes kids to an overwhelming selection of sweets in the checkout line to build character and contribute to their education 😛

If you have been paying attention you would know that I was in the supermarket in the first place because I couldn’t get everything I needed at the farmers’ market.  Doesn’t this prove that we still need supermarkets and shouldn’t we be grateful for the array of choices they offer us?  Sort of. I, for one, still need them, but my relationship with them is changing rapidly.  I am hardly ahead of the curve when it comes to issues of health and nutrition.  If I were, I wouldn’t be an obese, diabetic 38 year old!  I used to find people who only ate organic, or shopped at farmers’ markets annoying and thought of them as “alarmist” or “faddish.”  I am now one of those people.  The 2004 press release of my favorite supermarket was prophetic.  In 2013 I finally caught on to a trend they identified almost 10 years ago!  Although I still need the supermarket, I am needing them less and less, because they sell very little of what makes up my daily diet.  At the same time more and more farmers’ markets and co-ops are popping up, they are highly responsive to customer feedback, and every time I visit they seem to supply more of the ingredients I stock up on to ensure that I can continue to offer the menu of my new “home restaurant.”  For the time being I am glad that the supermarket is there although my friendship with them is somewhat strained.  For years I was a willing victim cheerfully guzzling down sodas and salt and vinegar crisps.  Now I only get what I came for, I see through all the marketing and “story telling” and I know not to look directly at the sweets in the checkout line for too long, least they blind me!

I have plans to plant a herb and vegetable garden in the Spring (we are now heading into Autumn) and increase my food independence even more. How long before I am able to end my troubled relationship with the supermarket altogether?  How many more people like me are out there?  Is our food economy changing or is this just a passing trend that will fade  when we return to shopping in the manner to which we have become accustomed?  Time will tell.  However, if the size of the food movement has any correlation to the size of the “Organics” signs in my supermarket then this thing is HUGE, people!

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A Bold Experiment

If you have read through my ramblings on food, addiction and hunger thus far, you deserve a medal!  This post is going to be short and to the point and strive to answer the burning question:  “So where do I go from here?”

The picture is pretty bleak, truth be told.  At the ripe old age of 38 I am spectacularly disillusioned with my ability to lose weight by dieting, much less keep it off!  What’s more I now understand that there is a biological reason for this.  In the words of Dr Lustig: “No one can exert cognitive inhibition over a biochemical drive that goes on every minute of every day of every year. It is just not possible.”  So where does that leave me?  Am I destined to die young and die fat?  I really hope!  In an effort to avoid this fate, I am have devised a bold experiment that seeks to determine whether it is possible to eat a diet:

  1. So delicious that I never crave junk food.
  2. So satisfying that I never get hungry.
  3. So rich in nutrition that my body gets everything it needs for health, energy and well-being.
  4. Sufficiently low in calories that I am able to reach and maintain a healthy body weight.

I also want to achieve all of the above by:

  1. Avoiding extremes.  No deprivation and no bingeing. The “weight loss” phase of the plan needs to be as similar as possible to the “maintenance” phase.
  2. Not demonizing or deifying any of the macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fat).
  3. Not using any means to artificially suppress my appetite  (no pills or potions!)
  4. The concept of a dieter’s “Cheat Day” must be rendered meaningless by every-day delicious and decadent eating!

As Dr Phil would say: “It’s a good deal if you can get it!” Of course I realize a deal this sweet will come at a cost.  In order to achieve the above, I will commit to:

  1. Continually educate myself on the subjects of health and nutrition.
  2. Learn to cook and prepare my own meals from scratch.
  3. Do everything within my power to source the healthiest versions of all the foods I consume on a regular basis.
  4. Engage in regular physical exercise and strive to lead a generally active life.

The experiment will be deemed a provisional success if and when I have achieved a healthy weight and maintained it for one year, on the understanding that I would then need to commit to the plan for the rest of my life.  This blog will chart my progress for the purpose of accountability and for my own interest and entertainment.

Anyone who chooses to follow my journey:  Welcome and thank you!  Feel free to comment, offer suggestions and encouragement and ask any questions you may have about what I am doing and why.  I will try to answer to the best of my ability.

Figuring out Food – The joys of eating more to weigh less!

Yesterday I wrote about why it is a bad idea to tell a hungry fat person to eat less. I am still nervous about being arrested by the diet police, so I thought I should follow up quickly with a post about what I think should be done instead!

All joking aside though, anyone who is overweight or obese and experiencing excruciating hunger pangs is in serious crisis and is in dire need of intervention.  I know this from personal experience.  I have absolutely no doubt that such a person is in just as much physical, psychological and social trouble as an alcoholic, drug addict or a person with a serious eating disorder.  Although this is still a hotly contested topic, I do feel that the term “addict” is entirely appropriate for someone in this situation.

It is a very complex problem – if it wasn’t we would have solved it by now instead of holding crisis talks about how to address an “obesity epidemic!”  Hungry fat people are most likely dealing with some or all of the following:

1) They are malnourished from eating a calorie dense, nutrient poor diet.  Hunger signals that are really the body’s cry for nutrients are misinterpreted as a demand to take in more calories, and so a vicious cycle is set up.

2) They constantly ride a roller coaster of sugar highs and lows, always inevitably hurtling towards the next sugar fix.

3) The hormones that regulate appetite and fat storage (Leptin, Ghrelin and Insulin) are in disarray, and will work together to keep the person fat, come hell or high water.

4) They no longer understand the difference between “eating” and “substance abuse” so instead of nourishing their bodies they are abusing sugar, salt and fat to achieve hit after hit of pleasure (at the expense of health and sanity!)

5) They are overwhelmed with feelings of helplessness and despair as they know they need to do something but have lost count of all the times they have tried and failed.

So when I say that fat people are hungry I am not merely referring to the fact that they get slightly peckish between snacks and after swinging by the drive through are no longer hungry.  I am referring to chronic, long term hunger that rages unabated for days, weeks, months and years.  A situation akin to starvation.  I have lost a lot of weight in my life and gained even more and, like many people, I always felt that my problem with food was particularly insidious because “an alcoholic can commit to never drinking again, but food addicts still have to eat.”  This thinking had me feeling like a victim, which of course is completely unproductive, until I had a life changing insight: there is a world of difference between food, and drugs pretending to be food! Once I understood this difference I realized that it was in fact possible to take a journey to recovery exactly like any addict trying to get sober.  One that involves taking responsibility for your health and eating more real food in order to get off fake food drugs.

As a veteran yo-yo dieter I kept making the same fatal mistake over and over again. Yes, you guessed it, exactly like a crazy person!  I would start a diet, no matter how extreme and unsustainable, in a bid to just get the weight off, and I would tell myself that once I had lost the weight I would figure out how to keep it off.  I once lost 30 kg by eating 1 energy bar and a handful of appetite suppressants a day. Everyone was super impressed and proud of me, when really they should have been dragging me off to the psychiatric ward of the nearest hospital! This was socially sanctioned madness because everyone and their mother likes to tell fat people to eat less! What I didn’t realize was that the decision to start a diet involving eating less was nothing more than a stage in the “try hard – give up” cycle of addiction!  Now I consider myself to be an intelligent person, so I can’t explain why it took me so long to realize that in order to get a different result I would need a different strategy.  But let’s let bygones be bygones – for whatever reason what I am doing now is different, dramatically successful and 100% sustainable.

The breakthrough came when I began to discuss my experience of hunger with my husband. He had no idea what I was talking about, and although he loves to eat as much as the next person, he says that he has never experienced “hunger” in the way that I described it.  This allowed me to figure out that what I felt on a daily basis was not the same thing that every human on the planet felt, but some were just able to ignore.  News flash: Skinny people do not have super powers, after all!  Winning the Hunger Games has absolutely NOTHING to do with will power! This lead me to give up on trying to lose weight and made me decide to just figure out how to stop being hungry.  It was the best decision I ever made!  I also decided that I would lose weight in exactly the same way that I hope to keep it off, and that I would never “go on diet” again.

I figured out a workable strategy through reading books, searching the Internet and experimenting to learn what worked and what did not.  I am happy to say that I have not felt “unnatural zombie hunger” in months.  For some specifics, see my next post: “Top 10 Tips to Win at the Hunger Games.”  Besides not being hungry anymore, I have painlessly lost 25 kilograms (55 pounds), my type II diabetes is controlled without medication and I have gone from being hypertensive to having blood pressure on the low end of normal.  The jury is still out because I know that I could still relapse. I also still have 36 kgs left that I need to lose, but all early indications are that something is finally working!

Fat People Are Hungry! – The misery of being overfed and under-nourished

Listen up!  The Diet Industry, self-help gurus and self righteous skinny bitches need to stop telling fat people that they need to eat less!  It is cruel, ignorant and spectacularly unhelpful!

Now I realize I have just uttered diet blasphemy.  But before you try me as a heretic and burn me at the stake, please hear me out.  I think I can make my case.

Here’s what I know as a soon-to-be-formerly fat person.  For most of my life I have been really, really hungry.  Anyone who saw how fat I was and knew what I used to eat on a daily basis would wonder how this is possible. But trust me, it is.  And I don’t think I am the only one.  Our kind are real and we walk among you! I was hungry (or starving, more accurately) for the simple reason that I was eating the wrong “food” – and a lot of it!  “Food” that was high in calories, low in nutrition and deliberately engineered to make me keep eating without ever addressing my hunger.  It would make a great plot for a horror movie:  the more I ate the hungrier, and the fatter, I got! I was suffering from something I have affectionately named “unnatural zombie hunger.”

Fat people are often encouraged to do a great deal of introspection, hand wringing and soul searching to answer the obnoxious question of some well meaning personal trainer, therapist or parent who looks them in the eye and gravely asks “why are you so fat?”  This line of questioning usually ends with a tearful confession about some childhood trauma with the interrogator nodding in sympathy and self satisfaction at their ability to get to “the heart of the problem.” Well I have asked that question of myself and finally found an answer that makes perfect sense to me. No, it isn’t because I have poor self-esteem, am seeking my father’s approval or didn’t get cuddled enough as a baby.  It is also not because I am lazy, have no impulse control or just “f’ing love cake” as Ricky Gervais so eloquently puts it.  I am fat because I was hungry, plain and simple! Now I realize that this answer is not sensational enough to get me a spot on a reality TV show, but it is one of the greatest insights of my life and the first huge step in my recovery!

Hunger is a basic human drive, like thirst, sex, or breathing!  It is a necessary component of our biology without which we would not survive.  However, we can seriously mess with hunger and turn it into a monster that controls our every waking moment. Simply put, we do this by not eating the right food in a timely manner and then eating way too much of the wrong food.  The big problem for me is that I had no idea that my hunger wasn’t the normal healthy kind, it was the diabolical make-you-fat-and-kill-you kind!  I experienced hunger as an intense physical pain in my gut so extreme that I needed to eat with the same urgency as one might feel when needing to empty a bursting bladder! I classed it as the same level of emergency as needing to take a pain killer for a migraine headache! For me being hungry meant: eat as much as you can, as fast as you can and eat foods containing as many calories per bite as possible!  And I had no idea that this was not normal.  In that state I was eating purely to alleviate physical pain, not for pleasure and most certainly not for nourishment! All I knew was the word for “hunger,” and my physical experience of it.  I didn’t realize that this was not how everyone experienced hunger.  I just thought that skinny people had ironclad will power that allowed them to live in perpetual agony without giving in to the drive to overeat the way I did on a regular basis.

This blog will explore the question of why I was so hungry and what I am doing about it in greater detail.  But here’s a sneak preview:  all my previous attempts at dieting and weight loss were epic failures because they were founded on an attempt to “eat less.”  The problem is that eating less is a really dumb idea if you are starving! Of course I didn’t know I was starving and nor did anyone around me, because I was a great big fat person. But now that I know what the problem is, I know exactly what to do about it.  I have started eating more!  Or, more accurately, I have started eating real food and stopped eating drugs masquerading as food.  “Real food” meaning whole, unprocessed, nutritious food that my body recognizes and knows what to do with. Result:  I am no longer hungry, I don’t have cravings and although the volume of food I take in has increased, without really trying my calorie consumption has dramatically decreased.

So yes, I am mad at anyone who simplistically tells fat people to just “eat less” because I feel that this only aggravates the problem.  This doesn’t mean that excess calorie consumption, especially the wrong kind of calories, isn’t a serious issue that inevitably results in weight gain, among other things.  But this problem is, perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, solved by first getting a hungry person to eat more of the right foods until they no longer suffer from “unnatural zombie hunger.”

Not everyone oversimplifies the problem of course, and there are many very insightful, caring professionals who provide excellent advice.  I appreciate the insights of Michael Pollan, for example, who sums it up beautifully and simply with the often quoted: “Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.”  My contention is simply that we first need to stress that people should eat a diverse plant-based, whole foods diet (as opposed to fake “food” products), and then the “not too much” will follow as a matter of course.

So I say again – stop telling fat people to eat less!  Doesn’t the statistic that 90% of people who lose weight on a diet gain it back make anyone realize that this advice is completely useless? Having said this, fat people like myself are not victims and we can and must take personal responsibility for our health. For me the best way to do this is not to “go on a diet” but to eat more delicious healthy food, thereby crowding junk food out of my diet, and gently, kindly and sustainably shedding unwanted weight in the process!